Monday, October 13, 2014

River’s Gonna Rise* - Hydro Power in New Hampshire – Part 3: PSNH Hydro Operations and River Flows

In my last few posts, Down by the Water  and Take Me to the River, I mentioned that my office looks onto the Merrimack River and the upstream Amoskeag hydroelectric operation that has been producing electricity for the past ninety years.  From this view, I often take note of river flows and whether the water is spilling over the top of the dam wall, as in the photograph below. In this post, I discuss the variability of river flows and how hydro plant electricity outputs are very dependent on these. I also look at the capacity factors of the Merrimack River hydro operations and compare them to national averages.

Weather and precipitation are the most important variables in hydro electricity operations because these determine river flow. I dug up some relevant information about Merrimack River flows near my office from the United States Geological Services (USGS). The chart below shows the river flows at the Goffs Falls monitoring point, which is just downstream of the Amoskeag Dam. The jagged blue line shows the data for 2013 and it is surprising how variable the flow is from day to day. The orange dots show the average flowrates over the past 76 years. This historical data shows that river flows generally rise during April to June due to snow melt, reaching flows that are four times the average value, and then drop off considerably during the dry August to October period, to about one quarter of the average. Interestingly, the summer of 2013 was a wet one, as indicated by the higher-than-average river flows during this period.

Source: USGS

A simple relationship dictates the generating capacity of a hydro operation:

Power = Constant x Flow x Height

In an operation such as Amoskeag, the height (or head) is essentially fixed because this is a constant-level run-of-river operation. However, since Merrimack River flows do vary, I took a look at the 2013 monthly river flows and compared them to monthly electricity production (measured in MWh) for the two larger operations on the Merrimack River. These are plotted in the figure below on the left, with river flows in the green bars, and Amoskeag and Garvin Falls electricity generation in blue and red, respectively.

Data Source: USGS and EIA

As expected, high river flows, particularly during the April snowmelt or the wet July of last year, generated higher amounts of electricity.  Low river flows, such as in the dry months of August to October, were associated with lower generation rates. 

The chart on the right plots energy generation against river flows for the Amoskeag plant. I was somewhat expecting a 1:1 linear relationship and was initially surprised to note how generation tended to start leveling off at high flowrates. However, the PSNH hydro folks pointed out that the maximum flowrate through the Amoskeag turbines is 5000 cubic feet per second (cu. ft/sec), so one would expect to see generation level off above this flowrate. Moreover, an average monthly flowrate of greater than 5000 cu. ft/sec does not necessarily mean that flow rates are higher than 5000 cu. ft/sec for 24 hours a day – there may be periods when it is substantially higher and then there are periods of lower flows.

In one of my recent posts, Down by the Water, we noted the simple mathematical relationship between energy and power:

 Energy = Power x time.

Applying this relationship to the Amoskeag operation, which has a nameplate capacity of 16 MW, and assuming 30 days per month and 24 hours per day of operation, the maximum monthly generation from the Amoskeag Dam can be calculated as

Energy = 16 MW x 30 days x 24 hr/day = 11,520 MWh

This is pretty close to the maximum monthly generation output on the chart above.

I was also surprised to note that the power generation of Garvin Falls was half that of Amoskeag although its generation capacity (12 MW) is 75% that of Amoskeag (16 MW). Calculating the total generation for both operations for 2013, I noted that Amoskeag produced 66% of its maximum electricity output (also termed its capacity factor), whereas Garvin Falls produced only 44%. It turns out that Garvin Falls is a more troublesome operation because it has a gatehouse and a narrow channel for a head race that is used to direct water into the power houses. River-borne debris, such as leaves, branches, trees, etc., build up behind the gatehouse and restrict flow to the channel, which significantly compromises the steady generation of electricity from this operation. Regular maintenance, involving the removal of debris from the screens where the water enters the power house, is required.

The Energy Information Agency, EIA, produces an average annual capacity factor for all hydro operations across the US. In 2013 it was 38.1%, which is much lower than I would have anticipated. I was expecting capacity factors for hydro operation to be of the order of 80% or so but the annual data from 2008 to 2013 shows US capacity factors ranging from 37.2% to 45.9%. The national data does indicate that the Garvin Falls and particularly the Amoskeag operation have capacity factors greater than the average US hydro operation.

There are several reasons for these lower-than-expected capacity factors for hydro operation:
  • Precipitation and river flows are variable and the maximum flow of water that the generators can handle is not always available.
  • River-borne debris and winter ice can at times significantly compromise water flows into the generating units.
  • The generating units need to be slowed or shutdown for periodic maintenance.
  • Even though hydro plants are generally the lowest cost producers of electricity when selling into the wholesale markets, they can be underbid by other generators, particularly heavily subsidized wind operations which will sometimes even pay to produce electricity. At times like these, there might not be any call for hydro power and the units are shutdown.

PSNH owns and operates several hydro operations in NH. Those listed below are owned and operated by Northeast Utilities, the parent corporation of PSNH.

Based on recent documentation submitted to the NH Public Utilities Commission, hydro operations will be responsible for about 11% of  the ~3,016,000 MWh of electricity that PSNH is planning to generate from its own facilities in 2014. These are PSNH’s lowest cost electricity generators and are thus an important asset to keep in operation and perhaps even consider expanding, even though the impacts of new or expanded hydro operations could be considerable and permitting could be extremely difficult. We have to recognize that there is a price to be paid for every energy source we use but, unlike fossil fuels where every ton of carbon dioxide we dump into the atmosphere intensifies the green-house effect, hydro plants will be still generating electricity one hundred years from now and will still not be pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

An important debate regarding these facilities is presently underway in NH (discussed in Should I Stay or Should I Go). In order to complete the electricity deregulation process in New Hampshire, it has been proposed that PSNH should be compelled to sell these hydro generating operations, along with their wood- and gas-fired operations and the large coal-burning plant on the Merrimack River in Bow. However, with electricity prices shooting up this winter and with PSNH customers, for the time being at least, somewhat shielded from these increases, this does give one pause for thought and to consider that ownership of generating operations may perhaps have some benefits. This is certainly a topic I will return to in a future post.

Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room and, if it is raining, contemplate that the river’s gonna rise* and the hydroelectricity output will increase.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(*River’s Gonna Rise – An instrumental tune by Patrick O’ Hearn, a LA bass player and electronic musician who has had a long and varied career, including stints playing bass in Frank Zappa’s band, the New Wave group, Missing Persons, as well as releasing over a dozen solo albums featuring electronic and ambient music. He is well known for his film scores and in the past few years has been playing bass in John Hiatt’s band. Here is the title track from Patrick O’ Hearn’s 1988 album River’s Gonna Rise.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Take Me to the River* - Hydro Power in New Hampshire – Part 2: Touring the PSNH Hydro Operations

In my last post, Down by the Water, I noted that my office looks onto the Merrimack River and the upstream Amoskeag dam and the hydroelectricity power plant that has been in operation for ninety years. In this post, I take a closer look at this power plant, which I had an opportunity to tour, as well as its sister upstream plants in Hooksett and at Garvin Falls. 

In the process of learning more about the operation of the Amoskeag Dam and the hydro plant, I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the operations by the experienced hydro team at PSNH. The photographs below were taken during this tour. My tour of the facility was fascinating. I got a great view of the dam from the powerhouse side and was able to view the power plant from the inside.

The power plant is home to three 1920s vintage turbine and generator sets, which continue to work perfectly today and are so well designed and maintained that replacement is not warranted. As an engineer, I was very impressed to see these 90+-year old units still operating and generating electricity. The hydro industry is rather unique in the electricity generation business, in that many of the operations rely on old, well-designed equipment, which, in some cases, are 100 years old. This is a testament to past engineers who designed these units without the use of calculators, spreadsheets, or computer-aided design and drawing tools.

The Amoskeag Power Plant has a long history. The project was started by the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, the textile manufacturing company established on the banks of the Merrimack River and which led to the founding of Manchester. The Amoskeag Mill was at one time the largest cotton textile plant in the world. At its peak, the mill was powered by thirty water turbines, twelve steam engines, and five steam turbines.  In 1918, a decision was made to completely dam the Merrimack at the Amoskeag Falls and to install a hydroelectric generating station. This was placed into operation in 1924.

During my research I was excited to uncover the photograph below from the PSNH Shoebox website, which is a collection of old PSNH-related photographs. This  shows one of the turbines being readied for installation in the Amoskeag powerhouse in the 1920s. It is still in operation today.

Photo: PSNH Shoebox

After World War I, business became difficult for the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company because the US was in recession. Furthermore, the proliferation of electrical generating operations throughout the US, and especially down south, meant that cotton did not need to be transported north to be milled and woven. High costs, aging equipment, and labor unrest eventually led to the bankruptcy of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and the sale of the hydro operations to PSNH in 1936.

The Amoskeag Dam spans the Merrimack River so that the river flow can be harnessed and fed through the three turbines at the Amoskeag Powerhouse (see photograph below). The average annual river flow is some 4000 cubic feet per second (cu. ft/sec) (equivalent to 1.8 million gallons per hour). At full power, the maximum combined water flow through the turbines is 5000 cu. ft/sec. This means during average river flows of 4000 cu. ft/sec, all the water, except for a 280 cu. ft/sec habitat bypass,  is directed through the turbines and there is no overflow over the top of the dam. My photographs of the water overtopping of the Amoskeag Dam were taken during the tour. Because the river flow that day was very low (~ 2000 cu. ft/sec), I was surprised to see overtopping. It turned out that the Amoskeag power house was down for maintenance because the transformers were being replaced so there was no river flow going through turbines and the full river flow, except for the bypass, was consequently all spilling over the top of the dam.

I was also fortunate to be taken down to the lower levels of the powerhouse, where I walked to the other side of the dam through a service tunnel inside the dam wall that runs along its entire length. On emerging on the other side, I got a closer look at the inflatable gate that is used to control the height of the water in the dam.

The Amoskeag dam is just one of three hydro plants operated by PSNH on a fairly short stretch of the Merrimack river, so I decided to take myself to the river* and drive upstream to visit the other two. About 7 miles above the Amoskeag dam, there is a small single turbine 1.6 MW hydro plant on the Hooksett dam;  a further 5 miles upstream is the much larger Garvin Falls Dam, which hosts four turbines in two powerhouses which have a combined capacity of 12.1 MW. The PSNH Merrimack coal-fired power plant, which uses the Merrimack River as a cooling water source, lies between these two dams. It is clear that, even today, the mighty Merrimack has an enormously important role to play in energy generation in New Hampshire. Below are some photographs from my upstream excursion.

Much of this post has been touristy in nature with descriptions of power plants, tours and lots of pictures but in the next post I will dig deeper into the technical information, such as river flows and electricity generation, associated with these hydro operations. My visits and research for these posts has given me a better understanding of the operation and importance of these hydroelectric facilities as well as a much better appreciation for the engineering design and construction skills of those old time engineers.

Until next time, remember to turn off the lights when you leave the room.

Mike Mooiman
Franklin Pierce University

(*Take Me to the River – The fabulous and heavily covered Al Green tune. The definitive cover is by the Talking Heads. Here it is from one the best concert movies ever made – “Stop Making Sense”. Turn up the volume and enjoy Take Me to River.)